After visiting Pierre Bonnard’s joyous body of work currently on exhibit at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco I can report it is both other-worldly and very familiar. Its luminosity seems to radiate magically from behind the canvas. But the subjects are simple. Daily. Intimate.

Art critic Robert Hughes describes this Intimist tradition- “It assumes that the ordinary day-to-day… is deeply interesting as a subject of a painting. Not because it is lent grandeur by being part of the stage of an artists’ life… but rather because it shows that life…, in its ordinary quality just like yours or mine, … transcends its commonplaceness, thus giving us hope of meaning…in our own lives.” As Hughes continued to describe Bonnard’s work “…unheroic, but exquisitely phrased”.

Bonnard’s particular view must have involved serious personal reflection. To me his work is a soulful meditation on the everyday. It shows an awareness of the notion that “life happens when you’re making other plans.”

Bonnard may have been the first “process painter”. Process painting is the heart of abstract expressionism with its expressive, emotional and immediate concerns. It had its roots in Post WWI Surrealism and Dada. His working method was very modern, leaving room for flexibility and improvisation. It spoke to his delight in pushing the color about. His simple subject matter allowed for formal concerns. He did not care to fight the elements or the changing light in order to paint au plein air like his early contemporaries, the Impressionists. It interfered with the doing. His tiny, notated sketches of what was in his view in house and garden was enough to get started. From there the painting informed itself.

From the MOMA website- Instead of painting on stretched canvases, resting at a     convenient height and tilting at a comfortable angle on an easel, Bonnard chose to paint on unstretched pieces of canvas that he thumb-tacked to the walls of his studios or hotel rooms.

Several pieces of roughly cut canvas were juxtaposed on the wall in several rows, very near each other, often abutting.

Bonnard had several works in progress at any one time, of diverse subjects. Once he had mixed a particular color, he applied it on the various compositions he had on the wall.

Sometimes he painted various compositions directly on a single large canvas that he did not cut until later on.

He did not use a palette, but mixed his colors on plates, and walked back and forth between the wall and the table on which his plates were placed.

He found delight in seeing unpredictable color dance, wriggle and weave about the canvas with a sense that there was no absolute, but always room for experiments and improvements. Try this yellow there and there AND there—and oh, this vermillion over there. Color was not “local”, but for effect. Black was rare, but judiciously placed. Perspective was whimsical. The narrative was enigmatic.

He was not unequivocal as a painter, but instead he demonstrated the idea that we grow and we can more clearly express what we’re trying to say as we learn. Nothing was ever finished. The term “Bonnarding” was coined because of his practice of going to a gallery, an exhibition or even a collector’s home armed with palette and brush in order to change colors on a framed piece hanging on the wall. On his deathbed he had his nephew bring him his last painting so he could change a green foreground into yellow.

The lessons of Bonnard are simple, measured, redemptive and reaffirming. There is no perfect. Only seeing. Doing.  And a willingness to honor what we know and to keep looking.

The Buddhist poet Jane Hirschfield penned this poem about Bonnarding.

nothing ever finished

Because nothing is ever finished

the painter would shuffle, bonnarding,

into galleries, museums, even the homes of his patrons,

with hidden palette and brush:

overscribble drapery and table with milk jug or fattened pear,

the clabbered, ripening color of second sight.


Though he knew with time the pentimenti rise—

half-visible, half brine-swept fish, their plunged shapes

pocking the mind—toward the end, only revision mattered:

to look again, more deeply, harder, clearer,

the one redemption granted us to ask.


This, we say, is what we meant to say. This. This.

—Jane Hirshfield, from “History as the Painter Bonnard,” The October Palace (Harper Perennial, 1994)

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